Africa Cup of Nations
Brave Bafana’s Nations Cup dreams shattered in last minute
SA were seconds away from advancing to Nations Cup last-16, until they failed to clear a free kick on 90 minutes
Cairo — Bafana Bafana were brave and disciplined for most of their final group match against Morocco here on Monday.
But they were scuppered by one of football’s cruellest incidents when they conceded a goal in the 90th minute.
Bafana had one foot in the door of the Africa Cup of Nations last-16, but in the dying seconds a free kick was not cleared and Mbark Boussoufa buried a winner. SA were basically, though not mathematically, out.
Many South Africans will not have liked the way the team played. Coach Stuart Baxter should have some slack cut for him on this one, though.
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Anyone critical of this disciplined performance — though there were plenty of imperfections — does not grasp the scale of the Nations Cup, the class of the opposition here, and the necessity, sometimes, of doing what had to be done.
And Bafana were agonisingly close to doing that.
With the three best third-placed finishers from six groups going through, mathematically SA are not out. But they seemed almost certain to be surpassed in the third-placed table after Monday’s late game as well as Tuesday’s games.
Morocco topped Group D with nine points. Ivory Coast, 4-1 winners against Namibia in the concurrent game, were second on six points, Bafana third on three, and Namibia last on zero.
But Bafana also paid for defending too deep in the second half when they had indicated there might be something in attack for them. With Baxter naming an attacking line-up, the structure Bafana showed in their opening defeat against Ivory Coast was also back in a solid first half.
A lack of opportunities might have been unsurprising, perhaps, for a 6pm kickoff game that started in mid-30°C.
The opening half, though, was increasingly played at a remarkable pace for the conditions, in which Bafana fought for every challenge and closed spaces like terriers.
A free kick fell to Younes Behanda, open on the left of SA’s area, who miscued a volley over. At the other end Percy Tau fired past the left post.
Morocco had the first shot at goals in the 36th minute, by Youssef En-Nesyri, the danger player who got on the end of the Atlas Lions’ deliveries against Ivory Coast, which was held by Ronwen Williams.
Bafana came out looking for an early goal after half time, as Thamsanqa Mkhize’s shot skimmed the post after some intense build-up by SA.
Increasingly, though, SA sat back in the face of the powerful Morocco. Playing so much for the draw as to not keep the Lions on their toes was risky and counterproductive.
When Boussoufa blasted a drive onto the crossbar, it should have served as a wake-up call to Bafana to come out of a shell.
But even when SA managed to escape their half, the support sat deep.
En-Nesyri rounded goalie Williams far on the right and slipped on a shot, though the angle was awkward.
Bafana seemed to have done enough, though, for a famous qualification. Then a free kick fell to Boussoufa, who buried it from 15 metres.